Tag Archives: restaurants

Mangia! Mangia! – Zabaione, the Italian Dolce, Rarely Found in Italy

In the mid-1980s, I was sitting at the counter of the newly-opened Jackson Filmore Trattoria in San Francisco. I had finished a dinner that included gnocchi “come nuvole” (like clouds) as the Jack, the chef/owner, liked to say, when the subject of a dolce came up. “Have the zabaione,” Jack said. “Trust me.”

My seat at the counter was only a few yards from the kitchen stove. I watched as the pastry chef whipped up egg yokes in a deep round copper bowl, adding only Masala wine and sugar, and heating the mixture slowly as he whisked. Copper conducted the heat from the boiling water bath evenly, which allowed him to control the cooking process.

Zabaione (photo jacksonfilmoresf.com)
Zabaione (photo jacksonfilmoresf.com)

The volume of heavenly, luxurious yellow foam expanded as I watched. Served over strawberries, the warm zabaione flowing over the rim of a stemmed glass … no wonder I still remember this fabulous dessert thirty years later.

In 1998, I moved to Florence and stayed for over fifteen years. I thought my life would be filled with zabaione. Apparently no restaurant in Italy serves it and no home cook makes it anymore. A Florentine answered my wishful griping by saying that it was a dish made by mothers for their children and is too much trouble these days. I found zabaione gelato at Gelateria Vivoli in the late 90s and many artisanal gelaterias in Italy offer zabaione-flavored ice cream today.

Zabaione, an almost extinct classic sweet (kept alive only in America and still served at Jackson Filmore), is the perfect light, not overly sweet, ending to a dinner. The traditional recipe calls for only three ingredients—eggs, sugar and Marsala wine—and can be whipped up in just a few minutes. It’s useful to have a strong arm and a copper bowl.

Zabaione, also know as Zabaglione in the U.S. (photo fioriogelati.it)
Zabaione, also know as Zabaglione in the U.S. (photo fioriogelati.it)

One of the custard-like sauces that use egg yolks to thicken a liquid—crema pasticciera, hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise, come to mind—making zabaione is simpler in concept than in practice. Zabaione, like the others, is an emulsion, and the proportion of fat to liquid plays an important role. It requires patience when adding the Marsala to the egg yolks to prevent separation and care not to overheat and curdle the mixture.

The perfect copper pot for making zabaione (photo kitchenamore.it)
The perfect copper pot for making zabaione (photo kitchenamore.it)

Marsala is the most common wine used to make zabaione. But Gina DePalma, former pastry chef at Babbo Ristorante in NYC, makes her zabaione with Vin Santo, “because it is a wine with both sweetness and acidity.” She sometimes combine the Vin Santo with rum or grappa. In the Italian region of  Piedmonte, where zabaione originated, it is often made with bubbly Moscato D’Asti, a sweet local wine made with muscat grapes, or another Piedmontese wine, Brachetto D’Acqui.

marsala_vino_superiore_NI’m no cook, only an enthusiastic “good fork” (as they say in Italy), so I won’t give you the recipe or full instructions here. But I recommend a slow reading of home-cook Frank’s post on Memorie di Angelina and professional pastry chef Gina DePalma’s write-up on Serious Eats. Both describe how to make the traditional zabaione that has been made for centuries in Italy. Mika at The 350 Degree Oven adds whipping cream. This allows for either a warm zabaione or the cold thick zabaione, popular in the United States.

I favor the warm eggy zabaione, made without heavy cream, served immediately after it’s made, allowing the aroma of Marsala to waft about me as I savor its sweetness with every bite. Hopefully, while sitting at the counter in Jackson Filmore Trattoria.

Mangia! Mangia! – Al Covo Introduces Its Offspring CoVino in Venice

While Francesca was savoring the best pizza in Florence, I was at the Biennale in Venice making my own fabulous food find.

CoVino, the new spot in Venice
CoVino, the new spot in Venice

Fifteen years ago, I tasted eel for the first time at Al Covo in Venice. Tasty eel, devoid of fat, is hard to find (or so I’ve been told) so it was good that my introduction was an eel prepared by Cesare Benelli. After two or three more meals at the up-market Al Covo over the years, I am happy to say that this past May they opened a more casual place around the corner — CoVino, a classic bacaro-style place with the same high Al Covo standard for both food and service.

Ristorante Al Covo opened its doors in 1987, fulfilling a dream shared by owners Cesare and his Texan wife Diane Rankin (Abilene or Lubbock, I believe). Through the years, Al Covo has been known for the research, conservation and promotion of the exceptional regional produce of the Venetian Lagoon and surrounding territory. It was and still is one of the best Slow Food restaurants of Venice.

Diane and Ceasare - 25 years at Al Covo
Diane and Ceasare – 25 years at Al Covo

Located just off the beaten tourist track, hidden in an alley off of the Riva degli Schiavoni near the historic Arsenale, the small 40-seat restaurant is divided into two comfortable rooms in a rustic-elegant atmosphere and, in summer, opens an outdoor terrace facing the ancient campiello in the tiny piazza.

At Al Covo don’t miss the pasta with squid in ink sauce, fritti misti, grilled scallops and razor clams. Cesare’s pistachio rigatoni with bottarga is talked about on at least two continents. In Spring or  Fall, try the Venetian moeche (soft-shell crabs), simply dusted in flour and deep-fried or col pien, which is to dredge them in milk and egg yolk, then dust with flour and deep-fry, both served with bianco perla polenta. Or choose to simply have the crabs grilled briefly on the griddle, served with lemon-extra virgin olive oil mashed potatoes, tiny cherry tomato confit and fresh seasonal lettuces.

CoVino, tiny with its 14 covers,tastefully designed in the dark-wood bacaro style, offers a traditional menu and terroir wines. For thirty-three euro, you will pick from the market fresh offerings three courses (a glass of wine, an appetizer or pasta, a main dish and desert or cheese). I give Diane full credit for the great dolce. Somehow Americans create the most scrumptious cakes. Another nice touch is the small pitcher of iced water with a lemon wedge and a sprig of mint and the small paper bag of mixed breads placed on each table.

Andrea will welcome you into CoVino. He comes from the Enoteca Mascareta family and thus, knows everything there is to know about wine pairing and the wines of the Veneto. Dimitri is cooking in full view of the tables. His roots are in the hills north of Venice and he carries on the Al Covo standard of quality ingredients and precise execution of each dish.

Salt cod with a spicy touch
Salt cod with a spicy touch

Start with the traditional Venetian-style (sweet and sour) fresh sardines and melanzane in saor or creamy borlotti bean, bell pepper and clam soup. Follow that with sear fresh tuna with melanzane, tomato, and a patè of pistachios and black olives or baccalà (salt cod) with melanzane, olives, tomato salsa, and rosemary. Do not miss Diane’s dark chocolate cake, but if you must go lighter, try the watermelon with anise liqueur.

Diane's dark chocolate cake with chocolate sauce
Diane’s dark chocolate cake with chocolate sauce

Arrive early (12 noon) because there is usually only one seating at lunch, once the seats are taken, people tend to linger. At dinner there are two seatings at 7:15pm and 9:30pm. CoVino is closed on Wednesday and Thursday. No credit cards are accepted, so bring cash.

Address:  Calle del Pestrin, 3829a-3829, (ask at Al Covo if you get lost)

Phone:041 241 2705

Email:info@covinovenezia.com

Website: www.covinovenezia.com

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Italian Food Rules: The BookAmazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

“Bacaro” with a traditional menù and terroir wines, just around the corner from it’s “mother” restaurant.
The same quality as “Al Covo”, in a more simple, less expensive format.
Set price menù of 3 courses, to choose freely from the daily menù, accompanied with wine by the glass–€ 33,00.
Lunch:  from 12:00PM–3:00PM
Dinner:  two seatings, at 7:15PM and at 9:30PM

Italian Food Rule – No Meatballs On Top of Spaghetti

“Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball,” the red-faced “Italian” man said each time his stereotypical wife plunked down a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs … until the antacid commercial hit its punchline.

Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball! 1969
“Mamma, mia, thatsa spicy meatball!” 1969

“Spaghetti and meatballs, now that’s Italian!” is found in the script of many a b-movie.

Even Lady and the Tramp have their first kiss over spaghetti and meatballs served up by Tony, the mustachioed Italian singing cook in 1955.

The most famous kiss over spaghetti and meatballs
The most famous kiss over spaghetti and meatballs

Now, it’s time for the Italian Food Rule:  Spaghetti is not served topped by meatballs in sauce. Do not order “spaghetti and meatballs” in Italy!  At the very least, your waiter will laugh at you. (A sighting of “spaghetti with meatballs” on a menu found anywhere in Italy means that you are eating in a tourist trap.) If pasta and meatballs are served in the same meal, the two ingredients will be served separately – the spaghetti as a primi and the meatball(s) (polpettone or polpette) as a secondo.

Spaghetti with meatballs is not an authentic Italian dish. Like tiny bowls of olive oil set out for for dunking bread (another Food Rule for another day) spaghetti served with “red sauce” and topped with meatballs is an American creation. The pasta recipe probably made its first appearance in New York or New Jersy in the late 1800s.

Spaghetti with meatballs is an American favorite, not an Italian tradition
Spaghetti with meatballs is an American favorite, not an Italian tradition

The concoction is an American adaptation developed most likely as a reaction to the socio-economic conditions experienced by a wave of Italian immigrants who arrived at the turn of the 20th century. These Italians, predominantly from the regions of Sicily and around Naples, had been through the unification of Italy (1861) and World War I (1918). They left Italy poor and started lives in America poor. Meat was costly. For special occasions, when meat was served, the portions were small – too embarrassing to sit alone on the plate. But as a topping for cheap pasta and thin tomato sauce, meatballs the size of walnuts made the platter a celebration.

The meatballs eventually took over
The meatballs eventually took over

Of course, with prosperity came exageration. The platter of pasta was the same size, but the sauce became thicker, drowning the spaghetti, and the meatballs grew to the size of a kid’s fist.

The Italian-American spaghetti and meatball myth always invokes grandma’s recipe (ricetta della Nonna). In this tale, Nonna stands in her tiny kitchen, wearing a snowy-white apron around the barrel of her tummy, but showing off her still-shapely legs, waving a saucy spoon in her hand.

But the elegant Marcella Hazan, well into her 80’s, will tell all who hang on her every word about authentic Italian cooking, that the Italian Food Rule mandates: no meatballs on spaghetti. See herehere and here. She will give you a fine recipe for pasta with a meat sauce (ragu), but outlaws untidy balls of meat that roll down a heap of over-cooked spaghetti.

Spaghetti and ragu is a traditional Italian recipe
Spaghetti and ragu is a traditional Italian recipe says Marcella Hazan

In the 1930s, the Nonna gave way to jolly Chef Boyardee (Ettore Boiardi, who left Piacenza in 1915 at age 17 to land a job in the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. By 1928, he had invented a meatball-making machine.).

Ettore Boiardi takes over the hearts and minds of American school children
Ettore Boiardi takes over the hearts and minds of American school children

Like Tony in the Lady and the Tramp, Ettore (soon known as Hector) liked the spicy meatballs and he put them in a can with spaghetti, ready to be opened at every American kid’s lunch.  And so this song (sung even on Sesame Street) was heard around scout campfires from sea to shining sea:

On top of spaghetti, 
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball, 
When somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table,
And on to the floor,
And then my poor meatball,
Rolled out of the door.

It rolled in the garden,
And under a bush,
And then my poor meatball,
Was nothing but mush.

The mush was as tasty
As tasty could be,
And then the next summer, 
It grew into a tree.

The tree was all covered,
All covered with moss,
And on it grew meatballs,
And tomato sauce.

So if you eat spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
Hold on to your meatball,
Whenever you sneeze.

This quintessential American song should be proof enough that spaghetti and meatballs would never find its way to a traditional Italian table, and thus, ranks very high in the list of Italian Food Rules.

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Italian Food Rule – No Gaudy Dressing, Keep Salad Simple

To dress a salad in Italy is simplicity itself: bring a bowl of salad greens (preferably one to three varieties of radicchio tossed together – that’s all) to the table, add some of the best extra-virgin olive oil available, a small splash of red-wine vinegar or lemon juice, a generous sprinkle of salt and a bit of pepper; toss again and serve on a salad plate (don’t infect the leafy greens with left-over pasta sauce or juice from the ossobuco.)

Fresh greens are all a salad needs
Fresh greens are all a salad needs

The only debate is whether inexpensive balsamic vinegar (not the traditional DOP stuff from Modena) is an acceptable substitute for red-wine vinegar. Purists would say emphatically “No” but the number of Florentine neighborhood restaurants that bring the sweeter version of vinegar to the table seems to argue for, at least, an acceptable option to the Food Rule.

Add a bit of good olive oil and red-wine vinegar
Add a bit of good olive oil and red-wine vinegar

Italian Dressing, known and loved in the United States (as well as Canada, the U.K and most of the British colonies), is a vinaigrette-type salad dressing, consisting of water, vinegar or lemon juice, vegetable oil, chopped bell peppers, usually sugar or corn syrup, and various herbs and spices including oregano, garlic, fennel, dill and salt. Onion and garlic is often added to intensify the dressing’s flavor. Usually it is bought bottled or prepared by mixing oil and vinegar with a packaged flavoring mix consisting of dehydrated vegetables and herbs.

Zesty dry Italian salad dressing flakes
Zesty dry Italian salad dressing flakes

North American-style Italian dressing, and especially Creamy Italian, which consists of the same ingredients, but with buttermilk or mayonnaise added to make it creamy, is not acceptable to the Italian palate. (“Che schifo” or Che esagerazione!” says Francesca.) Don’t ask for it in a restaurant in Italy or particularly from the cook in an Italian home.

At home in many American refrigerators
At home in many American refrigerators

Needless to say, you will also not find the following dressings in any Italian kitchen: Thousand Island, Ranch, Blue Cheese, Russian, Louis, Honey Dijon, French, Ginger Honey, and, perhaps surprising, Caesar Dressing

Caesar Dressing is much more American than Italian. The most reliable story of its origins reports that Caesar Cardini created the salad and its dressing in Mexico.

Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing croutons and Parmesan cheese
Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing croutons and Parmesan cheese

Caesar (born Cesare) came from near Lago Maggiore. He and his brother Alex emigrated to the U.S. after World War I. The Cardini’s lived in San Diego, but operated a restaurant in Tijuana to circumvent Prohibition. According to Caesar’s daughter Rosa, on July 4th 1924 the salad was created on a busy weekend at Caesar’s Restaurant. It is said that Caesar was short of supplies and didn’t want to disappoint the customers so he concocted this salad with what was on hand: romaine lettuce and croutons dressed with parmesan cheese (another Food Rule, coming soon), lemon juice, olive oil, egg, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and black pepper. To add a bit of flair, he prepared it at the table.

That last bit was the only thing truly Italian about Caesar Salad – a salad should be dressed at the table or right before it comes to the table – the greens should never sit soaking in the olive oil and vinegar.

Radicchio with a bit of frisee greens
Radicchio with a bit of frisee greens

Try being Italian for awhile – leave the salad dressing bottles in the fridge and simply add a bit of olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to some fresh leafy salad greens. You may be surprised by what you taste for the very first time.

Mangia! Mangia! – Thanksgiving in Florence

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. What’s not to like? Great food. Good friends. Uncountable thanks. Football.

This year I got three out of four.

American Thanksgiving at Osteria di Giovanni
American Thanksgiving at Osteria di Giovanni

Usually I try very hard to be in the United States for the fourth week of November. Thanksgiving dinner never seems quite the same in any other part of the world. Probably because the roast turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes are hard to source and recipes never result in just that taste I remember from New York or New Mexico or California.

Giovanni and Carole Latini
Giovanni and Carole Latini

So last week when on a unseasonable sunny day in Florence I called one of my favorite restaurants Osteria di Giovanni to make dinner reservations for five clients and got Giovanni Latini, himself, on the phone. After taking the reservation, he exclaimed that his wife Carole was hosting Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant and that I must be there. Carole’s famed desserts would be enough to get me to go anywhere, anytime she issued an invite (I don’t favor traditional Italian desserts, but Carole, an American, has for years embellished the Osteria’s menu with fabulous sweets) and I jumped at the chance of Thanksgiving dinner.

Carole and Francesca - happy host and guest
Carole and Francesca - happy host and guest

Francesca came too, of course. Although she is Florentine with no “roast turkey/cranberry/ pumpkin pie/mashed potato with gravy/sweet potato with marshmallows/wild rice stuffing” genes in her DNA, she loves Thanksgiving dinner and has been honored to grace many a table in the United States in the late afternoon on the third Thursday in November.

Menu created by Caterina and Carole
Menu created by Caterina and Carole

Simple words fail to express how scrumptious Thanksgiving Dinner at Osteria di Giovanni was. The menu was traditional American with a dash of Italy (pea soup with basil, pumpkin ravioli with peppercorns). The turkey was roasted to succulent perfection and the crumbly corn bread was pure Pilgrim. Carole, Giovanni, and their daughter Caterina were gracious hosts as always. I suspect Caterina should get most of the credit for assuring that Carole’s inspiration was realized in each dish and Giovanni kept the packed Osteria running smoothly around the six or so Thanksgiving tables, but the dessert was pure Carole.

The perfect pumpkin cheesecake
The perfect pumpkin cheesecake

The pumpkin cheesecake was a gift. Light as a cloud, but full of flavor. Not one of those ricotta or gelatin “cheesecakes” frequently found in Italy. Carole demands Philadelphia cream cheese for her recipe and a traditional graham cracker crust. The pumpkin was so present that it could have been a pumpkin pie, but without the dense heaviness. I tried to convince Carole that the Osteria should have a cheesecake offered on the menu all of the time.

Carole with more of her Thanksgiving friends
Carole with more of her Thanksgiving friends

Thank you Carole, Caterina and Giovanni. And what about Chiara Latini? Well I’m having Christmas lunch at Ristorante Latini located between Certaldo and San Gimignano. The menu? Pure Tuscan.

Antipasto classico con salumi locali e Prosciutto Salato.
Crostini misti
Sformati di Verdure
Fagioli Neri cotti nel Vinsanto

Tortellini fatti a mano in Brodo di Cappone
Caramelle di Patate Dolci con Sugo di Cervo

Nana al Forno
Faraona in Umido
Filetto al Forno con riduzione di Vino Rosso

Carciofi Fritti
Patate Arrosto

Tortina di Mele profumata alla Cannella
Panforte ai Fichi, Cantuccini, Tartufini
Ricciarelli del Panificio Catullo

All I can say in anticipation is “Gnam, gnam.” (Look it up.)

Thank goodness there are thirty days available for dieting and exercise …


Mangia! Mangia! – Marco Stabile Cooks an Egg

Francesca gave me a sorpresa one rainy day in September. She had gotten reservations for Chef Marco Stabile’s presentation at the Wine Town kitchen in the upper level of the Mercato Centrale of San Lorenzo.

Wine Town is an annual event in Florence
Wine Town is an annual event in Florence

Marco Stabile is my favorite chef in Florence. I wrote about lunch at Ora d’Aria and Frank Bruni recently remembered a dinner that included a deconstructed panzanella con coniglio affumicato (bread salad with smoked rabbit) in the New York Times.

Chef Marco Stabile presents at Wine Town
Chef Marco Stabile presents at Wine Town

But that day in September, Chef Stabile was cooking an egg – or, at least, that was the most interesting part for me – to be paired with a duck liver paté, herring caviar, breast meat of a free-range hen, brodo of the same hen, and crunchy buttery bread crumbs.

Paolo Paris and his egg from PaoloParisi.it
Paolo Paris and his egg from PaoloParisi.it

Now back to the egg. The egg had been laid by one of Paolo Parisi’s hens just days before. These Livornesi hens are famous partially for laying the most expensive eggs in Italy. I’ve eaten them in Chef Stabile’s version of green eggs and ham (egg, purée of broccoli, and pancetta) and, more recently, topping a purée of porcini mushrooms, garnished with a crispy fried slice of the same mushroom.

The Parisi egg becomes a egg packet ready for boiling water
The Parisi egg becomes a egg packet ready for boiling water

Chef Sabile prepares the egg by first brushing a large piece of plastic wrap with extra virgin olive oil. He cracks one egg in the center of the oiled sheet and gathers it into a little sack without breaking the yoke. Slowly he tightens the sack around the egg, forcing all of the air out. Finally, he ties a knot in the plastic.

Stabile's dish before the broth and bread crumbs are added
Stabile's dish before the broth and bread crumbs are added

The egg is the last step of this fairly complicated dish – the paté of duck liver takes much longer to make and must cool for hours – waiting until all of the other ingredients are ready before it is dunked in boiling water for exactly 4 minutes. Each ingredient gets a place on the plate and the dish is brought to the table with a small pitcher of hot chicken broth (brodo).

At the Wine Town event, each member of the audience got a plate with the brodo already poured ,which disturbed the presentation a bit, but not too much.

Fabulous food inspired by Marco Stabile
Fabulous food inspired by Marco Stabile

My friend Lynette once gave me a lesson in the perfect dish at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco. We were eating a Garlic Flan. The perfect dish, Lynette said, has a pleasing color palette, a diverse texture combination (crunchy, liquid, creamy, chewy, etc.), and a variety of tastes (sweet, salty, sour, etc.). Marco Stabile’s creation of egg, paté, bread crumb, herring egg, chicken breast and broth had all of that – the perfect dish. And delicious, too.

The top of the 1865 Central Market
The top of the 1865 Central Market